“Simon, what are you up to?”
Evelyn saw the impish little smile on his face. The expression was so delightful that she could not help smiling in return. But he would not answer her question, and she fought back a childish urge to fuss. Her sense of curiosity was overwhelming, almost to the point of madness.
Earlier that day they had set out on a tour of the estate, and Simon had introduced her to his tenants. At first, most of them had seemed rather timid. But she encouraged them to talk, and it did not take long for them to warm to her. Afterwards, they had ridden out to look at the livestock and horses. But when it seemed to her that they should be turning back towards the manor, Simon kept riding further and further. At first, she had thought little of it. But now, she was eager to know what he was planning, and she shifted restlessly in her seat. Simon, riding close beside her, looked at her with an amused expression. He teased her.
“Do you fear we are lost?”
She smiled. “No. I am certain you know precisely where you are going. And I believe you have planned this in advance.”
To that, he grinned. “How perceptive of you.” He turned his gaze forward, looking rather smug...and utterly adorable. And his attractiveness only made her more curious to know what was in his handsome head.
“So tell me. Where are we going?”
He shook his head. “Patience,” he replied.
A sound of frustration escaped her. “Patience has never been one of my strong suits.”
“So I am discovering.”
For a moment she failed to understand his meaning. But then she blushed as she realized what he was implying. He was such a model of discipline, even in matters of love. In their bed, he was a passionate but tender lover…so attentive, and a master of restraint. He often teased her that she had yet to discover the delights of patience, and just the thought of it brought a flush of pink to her cheeks. She smiled sheepishly.
“Impulsiveness is in my blood,” she confessed. “Mama says it is an undeniable trait of being a Gisborne.”
Simon chuckled pleasantly. “As always, your mother speaks wisely.”
Evelyn’s smile deepened. “I have always endeavored to master it. But I fear it is a wild thing that will never quite be tamed.”
“I rather enjoy the unpredictable nature of a Gisborne. My life would be quite dull if you were to be otherwise.”
He brought his horse to a halt, and seeing it, Evelyn did the same. As she looked around, examining the open meadow and surrounding wilderness in which she now found herself, Simon dismounted. He came to her side, offering his open arms to help her down. She went gladly, kissing him as she was set on her feet, and as her arms went around his neck, she gave him a little smile, beseeching him.
“Tell me where you have brought me, husband. I can stand the suspense no longer.”
His response was a crooked grin. Taking her by the hand, he pulled her along. As they moved through a thick cluster of trees, he spoke without giving clues to his intention.
“Of late, it seems that your habits are becoming mine. I have a strange desire to act on a whim, rather than planning everything as I have always done.”
“Simon, you are bringing me to madness with your scheme. Cease your torment, I beg you.”
She fell silent as they came to a stop. Her lips parted as she took in a breath of astonishment. Before her was a paradise...a narrow waterfall that plunged into a sparkling pool, which was surrounded by a bright green bank of grass.
“I have made up my mind to take a holiday,” he said. “I hope you will join me in it.”
“Of course I will.” They sat down under the shade of a large tree. As his arm went around her, she smiled at their little spot of paradise. “It is beautiful,” she said. “But what will we do here, all alone?” Looking up at him, she saw the smoldering look that was growing on his face.
“I am certain we will think of something...if we put our heads together.”
She giggled as he kissed and caressed her.
“And to think,” she said. “I once thought you incapable of enjoying leisurely moments.”
Lying back in the grass, he gently held her close, reaching up to touch her cheek. His eyes sparkled, his mouth crinkling playfully.
“Since I have known you, my good sense often escapes me. And more and more frequently, I find myself incapable of mourning the loss.”
At first, she smiled at his admission. It was wonderful to think that his severe nature had been somewhat tempered. And yet, there was a sense of worry that she felt, and she could not hide it. She thought of the incredible dedication and devotion that knights possessed. Her expression became more serious as she looked at him, speaking softly with concern.
“Simon, should you not spend more time with your soldiers? I fear they will think me too much of a distraction.”
He shrugged. “My men are the finest in the king’s army. They receive adequate attention from me, day in and day out. They have no need for complaint.”
“But what of your staff?” she asked. “Do you suppose they think it unseemly that we are away in this manner?”
His reply was brusque and stern.
“I am the master, and I will do as I please. It is not a crime to spend a pleasant afternoon with my wife. If they find fault with it, they mind find servitude elsewhere.” Gently, he brought her face close to his. He pressed a kiss to her lips, and the smile returned to his face. “I did not bring you here to speak of servants or soldiers. We are here to enjoy a peaceful afternoon, so let us commence with it.”
It was difficult not to feel at ease when he talked with such self-assuredness. She settled into his arms, snuggling against him. The sound of his voice was so soothing, so warm. It was becoming one of her favorite pleasures.
“Love strengthens a man’s ambition. It gives him a greater sense of purpose. When I step foot onto a field, I think of you. I fight for you.” A quiet, tender moment passed. And he said, with hushed voice and deep sincerity...
“I would die for you, Evelyn.”
Tears welled in her eyes. In oft-told myths and legends, such declarations of honor and self-sacrifice had always sounded so romantic...so romantic. But to hear her own husband make such vows, and to know he meant them, it was frightening. She clung to him, her fear evident in her voice.
“Oh Simon, do not speak of such things. You know how terribly it upsets me. Talk of more pleasant subjects, I beg you.”
He sighed. “Very well. Tell me what you would prefer to converse about.”
Wiping the moisture from her eyes, she took a moment to find something, anything, that would be better to talk about, and she smiled as a thought came to her. Lifting her head from his shoulder, she looked into his eyes. “Tell me truly. When was the first time you knew that you loved me?”
He hesitated in answering. Tender and passionate though he was, it was clear from his expression that he felt awkward with talking about so soft a subject.
“I cannot recall,” he replied.
Not satisfied, she gently pressed him for an answer. “Please tell me, Simon. I wish to know.”
It took a moment for his expression to soften into resignation. But when it did, he wore a slight smile.
“The first time I knew that I had lost my heart to you, it was that night we spent looking at the stars. When you fell asleep, and I carried you to your chamber, I knew then that I was a conquered man.”
Her heart melted with joy. She thought back to that night, of how romantic it had been. Of how she had not wanted it to end. And a soft little giggle escaped her.
Simon raised an inquiring eyebrow. “You are amused?”
A little grin spread across her face as a confession came to her lips. Sitting up, she came to her knees beside him, prepared to make a hasty retreat if necessary. She looked at him, her eyes sparkling with mischief.
“That night, I was not entirely at rest.”
Slowly, he sat up. “You were pretending?”
“Only a little,” she grinned.
His eyes narrowed in a mock expression of anger. “You little minx. You were only feigning sleep?”
“I wanted to keep you with me, if only for a little while longer.”
He shook his head. “Shame, shame, Evelyn Jean-Carre. You are a naughty young woman, and you should be punished.” With a predatory look in his eyes, he moved closer to her. She bent backwards, both excited and nervous about what his intentions were.
“Simon, what are you doing?”
There was a growl in his voice. The sound of a beast stalking its prey. “You need to be taught a lesson in obedience.”
He reached out for her, but with a shriek and a giggle, she dashed away. He caught her after only a short distance, and she cried out in surprise when he turned her over his knee. While laughing, she feigned outrage, kicking her feet.
“Let me up this instant!”
Though she knew him to be anything but, he sounded quite serious. “Apologies, but I cannot oblige you this time. You must suffer the consequences of your actions.”
His hand came down on her backside. She laughed at the untrue strike. Through her clothes, and with his hand hardly inflicting real pain, she felt no genuine threat, and she found herself unable to stifle her laughter.
“Do you yield?” he demanded. When she was unable to answer, he swatted her behind again. “Answer me, woman. Do you yield?”
At last, she managed to say, “Yes, I yield!” After a moment he released her, allowing her to stand up and compose herself. As she brushed her skirt, she laughed again, but with a winded sound.
“Oh my,” she said, smiling. “I can hardly draw breath.” Looking up at him, she saw the amorous look in his eyes. Still feeling playful, she tried to take a step back. But a tree blocked her escape. She was trapped. And it thrilled her through and through. She shivered with anticipation as his lips closed in on hers. His voice was a heated, sensual whisper.
“There is no escape from me, my lady. I have you precisely where I want you, and I have no intention of letting you go...”
Rene woke from a deep, restful slumber. Squinting at the window, seeing the soft light of the sun, he judged the time of day to be early morning. A grin slowly spread across his face as he remembered the night that had just passed. With a stretch of his limbs, he eagerly looked around for his bedmate, only to find that Marie was gone.
No matter, he said to himself. I will find her soon enough. He stretched himself again, trying to recall the last time he’d felt so good. Feeling quite content to remain where he was, he pressed his face into his pillow, intending to go back to sleep.
His plans were halted by the clatter of the door being thrown open.
Louis marched in, and coming to the side of the bed, he kicked it hard with his boot.
“Get up, you lazy dog.”
Rene answered by pulling his pillow over his head. And Louis responded by yanking the pillow away and tossing it aside.
“What do you intend to do? Sleep the day away?”
Rene mumbled, but with a sound of amusement. “After the night I have just had, it would be a wise thing.”
With a snort, Louis commented. “What did you do? Spend the night fucking one of the kitchen wenches?” As Rene sat up, Louis picked up the trousers that lay on the floor. He threw them at his brother. As Rene sat on the edge of the bed, pulling on his pants, he smiled at Louis’ question.
“No. It was not one of them.”
Louis found a shirt hanging over a chair. “Who, then?” he asked, tossing the garment at Rene. Then his brows rose in understanding. “Oh, I see. It was your little friend. Why am I not surprised that you have attached yourself to another whore?”
Rene stood up quickly, angered by the insult. “Watch your mouth, brother. The lady means something to me. I happen to care for her.”
Kicking Rene’s boots towards him, Louis pursed his lips and huffed, entirely skeptical.
“They all mean something to you. You have cared for every pretty wench that has spread her legs. But you have left them all behind, have you not? Even your precious lady...” He brought his finger to his chin, pretending to be deep in thought. “What was her name? Or do you even recall?”
As Rene tied the laces of his shirt, he stared sharply at Louis. “Evelyn will always be a precious moment in my life. But I have opened my eyes to the fact that I will never have her. She is too good for me...too wholesome and decent. I need a woman who is more like myself.”
“Selfish and foolhardy?”
Thinking of Marie, Rene could not keep from smiling as he went to the wash basin. “More like audacious and brazen,” he replied. He washed his face, enjoying the feeling of the cool water on his skin. And the thought of Marie made his senses whirl. “She is brazen,” he commented, more to himself than to Louis. “Lord, you have no idea what a woman she is.”
Louis made a sound of disgust. “Spare me the details regarding your night of debauchery. Set your mind to matters of greater importance. Your life, for instance.”
As Rene cleaned his teeth with a twig, he spoke in a more serious tone. “I have made my choice.”
“I will make the wise choice for once in my life. I am accepting the Duke’s offer.”
Louis, coming around to face him, folded his arms and looked at Rene with great interest. “And pray, what miracle brought you to your senses?”
The reply was a shrug. “I cannot say for certain. But people change, Louis. It is the way of nature, even for a deviant such as I.”
As he washed his mouth, he saw the way Louis was staring at him, as though he was unsure of what to believe. Louis turned to leave.
“The Duke has set out on a hunt,” he said. “When he returns, I suggest you speak to him immediately.”
Before his brother could leave, Rene stopped him, as another important matter suddenly crossed his mind.
Louis turned, and Rene approached him. He was all seriousness now.
“In regards to Marie. I would appreciate it if you told your men to keep away from her. I know the way of soldiers. They think that any woman who is not of noble station is ripe for picking.”
Louis seemed rather dismissive of Rene’s concern, waving it off as he made to go. “I will speak to then when I am able.” Rene reached out to grip Louis’ shoulder.
“I do not jest, brother. Speak to them, or I will take it upon myself to do so.”
“Yes, yes,” was the impatient reply. “I will tell them not to touch your harlot.”
Angered by the second cruel insult to Marie, Rene gave his brother a hard shove, and challenged him. “If you dare to insult her again, you will regret it.”
Slowly, Louis turned in the doorway. He looked at Rene with a dark, fearless expression.
“Little brother, do not attempt to intimidate me. Your effort will only be rewarded by a second greeting from my fist. And as an added pleasure for myself, my foot may also find its way to your backside.”
Despite the knowledge that Louis was larger and stronger, Rene was not afraid, particularly when it came to the matter of Marie. He had never condoned the abuse of any woman, but there was something about her that made him especially protective, and he looked Louis boldly in the eye.
“Will you do as I ask, or will you not?”
Louis rolled his eyes. But he spoke in a calm, serious tone. “I will see that your woman comes to no harm. Now finish getting yourself together. There are important matters at hand.”
He left the room, closing the door behind him. Assured of Marie’s safety, Rene started to wonder where she had gone. As he pulled on his boots, he concluded to himself that she had to be nearby. After a good meal, he would seek her out. The Duke wasn’t likely to be returning soon, so there was some time to spend, and what better way to pass a morning than to be with a friend?
He traversed the grounds, and after some inquiries to other servants, he found Marie with several laundry maids. Two of them were hunched over a huge wooden tub, where they stirred the clothing and household linens that were soaking in lye. One maid was hanging sheets on a rope. And Marie was transferring clothes and linens from the tub to a basket. It sat in the rear of a cart, in preparation for the journey to the river, where the linens would be scrubbed and rinsed. Her sleeves were rolled up, her hair held back by a braided hairnet. There was nothing glamorous about her appearance. And yet, he was drawn in like a moth to a flame. Smiling, he approached her slowly, coming up behind her.
“Good morning, my lady.”
It was his hope that she would look at him and smile, or at the very least, give him some sort of acknowledgement. But she didn’t turn her eyes to him, and her reply was brief and cool.
Without an acknowledgement to lead him into a conversation, he was uncertain of where to begin. When it came to women, he was not accustomed to being unsure of himself. He took a moment, thinking of the night before. What wild, passionate hours those had been. Surely, her memories of it were as vivid as his. He tried to coax a warm response from her.
“I enjoyed your company last night.”
Again, her reply was brief. “I am pleased.”
She continued with her work, as if he was unworthy of notice. Her coldness bothered him. It reminded him of waking up that morning to find her gone, and the smile faded from his lips.
“I was rather disappointed to find myself alone at sunrise.”
She shrugged. “Such is the nature of our arrangement.”
As she went on with her work, he found himself growing frustrated by her lack of attention. They had agreed that during the day, they would be friendly to one another. She wanted nothing more, and he accepted that. But why was she being so frigid?
“I have agreed to keep our daytime relationship on a platonic level. But to leave me without so much as a farewell. That was not kind.”
She sighed. “Apologies, but when the dawn comes, our time is at its end. If that troubles you, perhaps you should find a new companion.”
“That is not necessary. I find you most pleasing, in more ways than one, so I think I shall retain our friendship. But I had hoped for a less chilly reception than this.”
At last she smiled, looking at him with amusement. “Forgive me, but when I am up to my elbows in lye soap and wet linens, I find it difficult to be gracious.”
Her pointed look brought him to his senses. Lord, he felt like a selfish fool. He gave her a sheepish little smile.
“Forgive my stupidity,” he said. “I think too much of myself. Here I am acting like a spoiled child, while you are slaving away with your duties. May I help you in some way, as a gesture of apology?” He looked around, having no idea about such things. To be truthful, it was the first time he had so closely observed such work. It looked and smelled awful, and he felt a true desire to aid her. But she shook her head.
“I can manage,” she replied. The cart was led by a donkey, and she took a hold of his harness, preparing to lead him away. “I shall see you tonight. Farewell, my lord.”
He watched for a moment as she departed without looking back. And he called after her. “You will leave me so quickly?”
“I have work that must be done,” she called over her shoulder.
“Yes, but can we not converse?” He hurried to catch up with her, coming to walk alongside her. “I give you my word that I will not be a hindrance.”
“Do as you please, but know that there will be little enjoyment in watching me perform my duties.”
You are so very wrong, he thought. There is enjoyment in watching all that you do.
Down at the river, despite her objections, he helped her lift the basket from the cart. He placed it at the water’s edge, and proceeded to watch as she used the river rocks to scrub the laundry clean. As she rinsed each piece in the water, she handed it to him to wring out, and he transferred it back to the basket. It was labor intensive, to say the least.
“So, this is what is required of a servant?” he asked. To which she made a sound of amusement. From her kneeling position, she looked back at him.
“How else do you suppose that your clothing and linens are made clean?”
He sighed. “I did not realize the volume of work involved.”
He wanted to say more. But a sudden shuffling from behind them, coming from the woods, caught the attention of both of them. A moment later, a hunting party emerged. And seeing that it was the Duke, along with his fellow nobleman, Rene and Marie both knelt down. Basil looked down at him.
“Good day, baron. Do you often enjoy women’s work?”
There was a wave of quiet laughter from the nobles, but Rene replied with his dignity intact.
“No, my lord. I was merely observing.”
Basil looked at him with interest. “Pray, have you made your decision in regards to our bargain?”
“I have,” said Rene, taking a firmer footing.
“And what is your choice?”
Rene gave his answer without fear. “I accept.”
The reply seemed to entertain Basil and his fellows, who murmured with amusement. He smirked, nodding his head.
“A wise decision. We will depart at first light.”
Without further conversation, he and his hunting party turned and left. Rene turned back to Marie, and was surprised to see that she had returned to her work. Clearly, she was not intimidated by the presence of nobility. It seemed that there was very little that impressed her, which in turn, impressed him. She was worldly, in many ways. Much like himself. And like himself, it seemed she was wise to seize an opportunity when it was presented to her. And a new opportunity was forming in his mind.
“Marie,” he said, “I wonder if I might offer you another proposal.”
The swiftness of her answer was baffling. Was her hastiness deliberate? He shook his head in confusion.
“You have not yet heard what I intend to say.”
“Perhaps I am not interested,” she replied.
“Perhaps you should be.”
With her basket of clean laundry filled, he helped her return it to the cart, and she said in a calm, even tone...
“I have agreed to be your companion. Is that not enough?”
No, it is not, he thought. But he felt that it would not be wise to tell her so, knowing that it would only be met with a jest or a dismissal. He kept his tone cool.
“This offer will benefit us both, if you will hear it.”
For a moment she said nothing. As she took the bridle of the donkey, leading him away, Rene walked with her. After a time, she spoke quietly.
“Very well, Rene. Speak.”
“I wish you to accompany me.”
She smiled, and he could see she was interested. “How will that benefit me? I have found a comfortable servitude here. You are to be taken into service for a man whom you despise, and who I am certain despises you in return. Do you not think I would be treated with equal disdain, if I were to follow you there?”
“I will beseech Lady Evelyn to treat you with kindness. And she will. I have no doubt of it.”
He looked at her, waiting for an answer. He wanted her to accept. She was, quite possibly, the most fascinating creature he had ever met, and he wasn’t ready to give her up.
“I will consider it,” she answered.
Her reply was frustrating as hell. If he did not know better, judging from the slight smile on her lips, she was purposely delaying her answer. It was a trick meant to tease him, and this he knew, for he had used that same tactic to entice women. It was bewildering to have such a trick now used against himself, and it grated on his nerves.
“Again, with the pondering of a decision,” he fumed. “Can you not be impulsive once again, as you were when I first encountered you? You followed me then. Why will you not follow me now?”
She replied in her usual, calm way. “I followed you in order to make my way. To seek a betterment for myself. A selfish gesture, perhaps. But in my circumstance, there is little room for compassion.”
“Very well, then,” he said. Pleading with her would not do. So if she wanted to be business-like in this matter, so be it. “Consider this an opportunity for yourself. You will be under the roof a Duke. To be in a house of such position will surely be to your advantage.”
At last, he saw a look of agreement in her expression. He was pleased when she nodded and replied...
“There is sense in that.”
Now it was he who smiled. “Of course there is sense in it. So then, will you go with me?” He looked at her, giving her a hopeful look.
“I will consider it,” she said.
Never in his life had he been so thwarted by a female. She was so stubborn, and so confident in her obstinacy. As they returned to the manor grounds, he groaned his frustration out loud.
“Woman, you tease me with your evasiveness.”
She only smiled as she began to hang the clean laundry on a rope.
“Your suffering will end when I come to you tonight. I will bring my answer with me. Until then, busy yourself in some way. I am sure there must be some task you can find to occupy your time.”
I could think of many things, he said to himself, and he walked away, leaving her before he said something and made a complete fool of himself.